Tiger Woods will enter the 2013 Masters as the prohibitive favorite and rightfully so. The world's top-ranked golfer has won three of the four PGA Tour stroke-play events he's entered this season. So the questions now surround who will be able to keep pace.
If Woods plays like he did at the Farmers Insurance Open, Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, it will be an incredibly difficult task. In those three victories, he played a combined 46-under par and was rarely challenged.
Whether he will be able to maintain that unmatched form on golf's biggest stage, Augusta National Golf Club, during the season's first major is yet to be seen. Let's take a look at three golfers who should serve as his biggest Masters competition.
1. Rory McIlroy
McIlroy is finally showing some signs of life after a rough start to the season. A couple of solid rounds at the Valero Texas Open wouldn't normally be a big deal, but for a superstar like the Northern Irishman, who'd been struggling, it's a step in the right direction.
For all the hoopla about his change of clubs, the fact of the matter is that it always comes down to execution. At the start of the year, McIlroy wasn't hitting the clean approach shots fans had come to expect. But he's starting to round into form at the exact right time.
There's no doubting his talent. The two-time major champion is the only player on tour who can come close to Woods in the natural ability category. If he can put it all together in the week leading up to the Masters, he's still a serious threat for the green jacket.
Although his last two results––a missed cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a 16th-place finish at the Shell Houston Open––were nothing to write home about, it's impossible to discount the three-time Masters champ. He knows his way around Augusta.
He does have a win under his belt this season, which came at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. More importantly, he ranks third on the PGA Tour in par breakers. All those birdie looks will be huge if his putting is on point next weekend.
Mickelson has been around long enough to know what happens when Woods is able to build an early lead. But he also knows that if he can remain striking distance, the competitive fire will get lit if there's a chance to get paired with Tiger in the final round. That should be his goal.
3. Ian Poulter
It's going to take two things in order to compete with an in-form Woods at the Masters. The first is incredible shot-making ability from the fairway. The second is confidence that you can go shot for shot with him on Sunday afternoon.
Poulter possesses both. He illustrated his nerves of steel during last year's Ryder Cup, when he basically put the European team on his back for periods of time when it looked like the United States was going to run away with the trophy. He made countless big putts to spark the comeback.
The biggest key for Poulter will be getting off to a quick start. He's only broke 70 once in an opening round this season. The last time a Masters champion didn't break 70 in the first round was Zach Johnson in 2007. He must stay within range early to have a chance on Sunday.